Back to

Marka and Isabel’s Declassified Indian Train Travel Survival Guide

(written by two non-expert train travelers, who also haven’t yet survived the trip as we are writing from bunk number 48 of a currently moving train)

If you find yourself in India, you may have a desire to change locations. And if you want to change locations, you will most likely find yourself on a sleeper train. Get excited, for this will be an adventure in sweat, blue plasticy materials, and literally shoving around the crowds of your new best friends and roommates.

The journey begins when you arrive at the station. Rickshaws and faux Uber Sazukis will become a distant memory as you trundle forward with the baggage you thought you packed lightly. The first thing that gives you pause is the enormous conveyer belt through a seemingly defunct x-ray machine. A journey on a train is a constant battle against the possibility of leaving stuff unattended, and that begins now. Rather than expose the luggage to the crowd on the other side of the security checkpoint, send one willing Indian instructor with an absurd love for Pulse Candy through to serve as your Stuff Guardian. The Stuff Guardian must dash through the security checkpoint, then stand at the end and recieve the packs everyone else sends along. This is no simple task, as it requires an agility and fierceness, and the mighty finger muscles of someone who crunches those finger excercisers in their free time. A crowd forms at the out end of the conveyer belt — imagine an airport baggage claim but where everyone is acting like it’s the Cornucopia at the Hunger Games and they are within a few seconds of death. The Stuff Guardian must grab the relevant bags and literally throw them over the crowd to patiently waiting and slightly glistening students.

Find a central gathering location. Once there, assess which bags you have lost and send someone back to the Cornucopia to find them. Then, take a moment to look around. You may find that people have taken the liberty of making themselves as comfortable as possible while they wait. This may look like beach towels and picnic blankets spread on wonderfully dirty cement, as if they were relaxing at the beach, or in one’s local park. Don’t be alarmed — this is the way it is! Like many things in India, questions will only lead to frustration. It is better to let things wash over you and just remember the only thing you know to be the truth: you know nothing.

Finally, you will arrive at your platform, home for the next unknown number of hours. Settle in! The war you are waging against stuff-stealers continues. If you have watched the show Doomsday Preppers, you may be familiar with the strategy of creating an impenetrable perimeter around the most valuable goods you have. Adopt this strategy — sit on your packs in a circle, and put your day bags in the middle. Additional benefits of this formation include increased ease during the dinner you expected to have an hour ago on the train. What’s that? What do you see? Out of the corner of your eye you notice a woman you thought you knew. She is holding a plastic bag full of yogurt to her mouth and gracefully slurping it. From a plastic bag. This is dinner. (We had other food too.)

The train will be delayed. It is inevitable, so accept it now. But the train will also be early from the updated, delayed time. So don’t get too invested in the game of Werewolf you may be inclined to organize. The train will arrive at precisely the most inconvenient moment.

Now find your bunk. This is the moment of peak persperation, so take it in! Or rather, let it out! The AC you paid extra for is yet to be turned on, holding you in suspense. The entire inside of the train is a study in shades of what once was white and teal. A narrow corridor stretches down the length of the car. The visions of warm light and cushy seatings a la Hogwarts Express rapidly recede from your memory, and visions of a hospital + submarine + bomb shelter mixed together appear in your mind. Every six feet, you pass a wall dividing the berths. To your right, two benches face each other, with a backrest which will eventually fold out to become the middle of a stack of three bunkbeds. Above that is the top bunk, which has approximately enough headroom to do half a situp, or lollygag about comfortably if you are a child or dwarf under three feet tall. To your left, running the long way along the hallway, are two bunks. These were presented as inferior because they are an inch shorter, but have another foot of headroom and are the perfect perch on which to write a Yak.

As you settle in, the night gains a certain… je ne sais quoi. Is it excitement? Not quite. Is it forboding? Not quite that either. It is the promise of a journey with pals, through the Indian countryside you will not see. Friends wander through, checking out the new digs and hopefully not eyeing your pack to become their own. At the end of it all, your sweatiness and struggle will be worth it. Here you are, comfortably in your blue leathery bunk, bleary eyed but well on the way to your next adventure.